Somerset Maugham: works and days

January 4, 2011 at 2:55 am (books, Film and television)

In a previous post on The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I wrote primarily of  the author’s childhood, youth, and early days as a successful playwright. I was planning to follow this with two more posts, one on Maugham’s works and another on his travels. I see now that such an approach to  the material is not feasible. These two vital components of his art and life are inextricably intertwined.

Maugham was ever the restless wanderer, to Europe, to America on numerous occasions, to the South Seas, the Far East, India. Everywhere he went, he collected stories to work into his fiction, creating worlds rich in atmosphere and incident. While young, Maugham and his friends frequented the Isle of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy. Having been to that magical place for the first time in May of 2009, I was delighted to revisit it via this book. At one point, during the First World War, on one of Maugham’s visits to the island, his friend Compton Mackenzie and his wife took up residence in the Villa Rosaio in the township of Anacapri. This is the same house that Graham Greene lived in many years later, as Shirley Hazzard recounts in her memoir Greene on Capri. Maugham set his poignant, elegiac story “The Lotus Eater” on this island, a place of intense yet evanescent happiness.

In 1916,  Maugham set sail for the South Seas. From this journey, both arduous and exhilarating, came “Rain,” probably his most famous short story. Selina Hastings calls this tale of a zealous missionary battling to save the soul of the prostitute Sadie Thompson “brilliant and terrifying.” I just read it for the first time and I agree with her. “Rain” had a fruitful afterlife, being made into a play and  three separate films, with top notch actresses taking the title role: Gloria Swanson in 1928, Joan Crawford in 1932, and Rita Hayworth in 1953.

Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in "Miss Sadie Thompson'

Sadie Thompson was a real person, met in the course of the author’s South Seas odyssey. Hastings informs us that “With his usual indifference to such matters, Maugham did not trouble to give the fictional version of Miss Thompson a different name.”

Maugham also used his new knowledge of this exotic locale in the writing of The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. his roman a clef based on the life of Paul Gauguin, an artist who fascinated Maugham. ( The symbol in the lower right hand corner of the book is a sign thought to ward off the effects of the Evil Eye. It appeared on numerous first editions of Maugham’s works, starting with the 1901 novel The Hero. For more information on this curious manifestation, click here.)

Maugham’s trip through China, undertaken with his secretary/companion Gerald Haxton, was another epic enterprise, the hardships gladly endured since the reward was so great: “Maugham was entranced by the beauty if the country, by the vivid green of the paddy fields, the little tree-covered hills, the graceful bamboo thickets that lined the side of the road.” From this journey came The Painted Veil. I approached the reading of this novel in hopes of an encounter as richly rewarding as I had experienced with an earlier work of fiction in the author’s canon, Mrs. Craddock. This did not happen. Maugham’s style in The Painted Veil is spare and elliptical; so different from that of the earlier work that at first it almost seemed to have come from a different pen altogether. I was dismayed at first, but my feelings changed as I got deeper into the narrative. 

There is one significant problem with this novel, a stumbling block that one also encounters in Maugham’s stories of the Far East: it has to do with the way in which the attitude of the colonial administrators toward the native – read non Caucasian –  populace is portrayed. I speak not only of casual denigration and the presumption of inherent inferiority. There is also contempt and outright repugnance. That same populace, while providing the governing class with an endless stream of personal servants and other low level workers,  is expected to be glad of the presence of the British overlords, with their superior intelligence and lofty organizational skills! Above all things, no challenge to the status quo will be tolerated.

This is a classic case of autre temps, autres moeurs, or as L.P. Hartley so memorably put it: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When situations like this arise, it is up to the individual reader to determine what attitude to adopt. In fact, it is up to that individual to decide if he or she can stomach the material or if instead, feels inclined to throw the book across the room. As a person who flinches when I encounter anti-Semitic sentiments in film or literature, I personally find it to be a question of degree and frequency. If the reference occurs only once or twice, and in a specific context, I can take a deep breath and keep going. If the point is repeatedly hammered, that’s another story.

(My own most recent experience of this type occurred when my husband and I began watching Mad Men. In the early episodes, a number of anti-Semitic comments were tossed off – enough so that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with the viewing. But those references dried up fairly early on in the series. So we stayed with Mad Men, and we love it. Ironically, when we first watched Mad Men, I was forcibly struck by the way in which my own family’s experience was being mirrored. My father’s business prospered in the postwar years due largely to the revenue generated by television advertising. Ultimately, he rose to the rank of company vice-president, with a corner office in the General Motors Building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan. The windows of his office looked out over Central Park.)

Getting back to The Painted Veil, I’d  to recommend this novel to my book group. For one thing, I’d like to hear what other readers have to say about the disparaging remarks that crop up in the narrative more frequently than one would like. I also want to get everyone’s take on the protagonist, Kitty Fane. Here’s what Selina Hastings says about her:

The portrait of Kitty Fane is one of Maugham’s finest fictional achievements. As with Bertha Craddock more than twenty years before, he displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.

This astute depiction was probably helped by the fact that Maugham’s social circle would have included a good many young woman who resembled Kitty Fane. As the novel opens, she is superficial, self-absorbed, and spoiled. Her growth and change, and the reasons for this alteration in her character, are what make The Painted Veil an absorbing read.

After I finished the novel, I watched the movie. Released in 2006 and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, it is well worth seeing but differs in a number of ways from the novel, especially with regard to the story’s conclusion. I found myself very much wanting to discuss these divergent points with someone who had both read and seen The Painted Veil.

I will say this about the film: the cinematography is superb. China’s countryside, so admired for its beauty by Maugham, is simply mesmerizing. Some of it appears, albeit briefly, in this trailer:


Still to come: Maugham’s tales of the Far East, and Maugham the spy.


  1. teri said,

    Would you please focus on current authors. We all know the great
    dead authors. thanks. I love your site.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Teri: Coming up: Alexander McCall Smith!

  2. kathy d. said,

    I did read Somerset Maughan’s books while a teen-ager, but can’t remember what I read nor what drew me to his books.

    I think, having read your remarks, that I would throw the book across the room at too many anti-Semitic, racist or arrogant comments by the British characters towards the Chinese. I have no patience for this.

    That said, the cinematography in the movie of China looks magnificent. Maybe I can watch it with the sound off!


  3. Barbara said,

    Well, I guess you can’t please everybody but I very much delight in reading your posts on “non-current” authors particularly this very compelling piece on Maugham. I read the book and was entranced and then years later stumbled across the movie on TV. Felt the movie was not true to the book on many levels but isn’t that usually the case in Hollywood? I also adore Alexander McCall Smith and think your thoughtful post perfectly illustrates why he is such a beloved author. I am looking forward to reading you in the future having just discovered you!!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Barbara. Your gracious comment reminds me that I need to get back to work on my final Maugham post!

      • Barbara said,

        Actually cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to your fascinating posts. I adored your music selections and just feel like I have stumbled upon a little treasure trove of future delights brought to me by a kindred spirit.

        Regarding our friend Alexander (I am on a first-name basis with him in spite of having never met), have you read the Mma Ramotswe books? This was my introduction to him and I have only recently delved into the Dalhousie series. Many years ago, when a family member was desperately ill and in the hospital ICU, the only books I could manage to read were his No. 1 Ladies Detective agency books. Because they were such “easy” reading on one level, I could muster my way through chapters while most of my brain was focused on what was going on in the room around me. Found that his simple, dear characters were just what I needed to get through this difficult time. He will always be a favorite author to me for that reason.

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